Deborah Masson meets me with a giant bosie and loads of warmth, a typical Aberdonian greeting. She is glowing with light for someone who spends so much time conjuring up nasty events for her novels.
Her first of three published novels in the DI Eve Hunter series, Hold Your Tongue, was written while attending an online Faber Academy course, and looking after young children. The finished draft scooped her an agent, multiple publishing deals and a Bloody Scotland literary award.
While the road to getting published is haunted by belligerent advice like ‘an author’s first novel never gets published’, or ‘you need a gazillion Twitter followers to catch the attention of an agent’, Deborah’s story proves that the most important thing for a writer to have is a superb story.
We met at the Ferryhill Hotel for lunch and a chat about her first blood moments with writing and where she’s at with her journey now.
In her words…
Where did it all start?
When I had my first child and my husband was away offshore for half the year, I needed something to stop me from cracking up. So I thought, ‘what did I really used to enjoy but lost sight of because life gets in the way?’ I liked writing as a child, so I bought a writing magazine that set competition stories. You had a hook, a deadline, and a word count, which made it easy to try. So when my eldest was napping in the afternoon, I started scribbling. And then, I sent the first short story I wrote to the competition, and I got second place.
And then, I started writing flash fiction and joined an online chat group as a way of socialising with like-minded people, from home. I saw an opening for a six-week introductory course to crime writing through the Professional Writing Academy. It was manageable around the child, so I signed up for it and absolutely loved it because of the exercises that they set. I followed it with a Faber Academy course to write the first 10 000 words of your novel, and I was lucky enough financially at that time.
What I really loved about that course was being supported by the tutor and fellow students who were teaching you how to give constructive criticism because you had to keep their stuff on top form too.
By the end of that, I thought, let’s give it a bash; let’s do this. So I signed up for another course which was a continuation with my Faber tutor, and at the end of it, I asked him to do a manuscript assessment, which I paid for. Wow. It was so worth it. He gave me pointers as to where it could be tightened, changed, etc. and when we did all that, I had a first draft.
Upwards from the first draft
If my mother hadn’t been so ill, I might not have pushed the agent decision, but I wanted to make her proud, so I sent it off to four London agents that I found on Twitter. And I was in Tesco, in the fruit and veg aisle, when my phone rang, with a number I didn’t recognise. I was literally carrying a watermelon, like baby from dirty dancing, and it was my future agent asking to read the full manuscript.
I sent it and time went on, so I chased it up while I was on holiday. I was sitting at the karaoke bar, cocktail in hand, listening to a Bonnie Tyler song, and he called me back, saying the manuscript was doing the rounds, so he had sent it out, which I hadn’t heard back on.
And that was kinda the dream accomplished already, to have representation, but then he came back with a two-book deal.
Writing a series
I wrote the first book without looking ahead. The first course I did was crime fiction, and it’s what I’d always read, but I didn’t dare to think of it ever seeing the light of day. I only realised it was going to be book-one once my agent secured a publisher, and I was asked to pitch a follow-up in order to secure a 2-book deal!
The second book, From The Ashes, was inspired by articles I’d read about Nazareth House in Aberdeen — and my mum knowing someone who had grown up in that environment. It was such a heart-wrenching situation for these vulnerable kids laid bare to the adults who ‘looked after’ them. It chilled me to the core to hear some of the stories of the abuse they endured. It made me want to explore that in as sensitive a manner as possible, and I wrote the book very much with the nature or nature theme in my head.
Character growth — what’s changed in the DI Eve trilogy?
I think Eve has softened and grown as a person. I guess that mirrors my own journey in a way. When I first started writing her, I was in a difficult period of my life — perhaps that is why it’s so dark and gritty, but I feel it’s become a little brighter as the books have progressed. A little! I love them all — especially Cooper. Eve needs someone like that by her side.
I don’t do much research at all. Terrible! But, if I have to, I do it afterwards. I’m scared of getting too bogged down in that side of it. I have to remind myself it’s fiction and the heart should be a good story — but I’m also aware that crime fiction readers know their stuff, so you have to be careful as you won’t get an ay with anything!
Who is your favourite detective character?
I’d have to say, DI Tom Thorne the long-running series written by Mark Billingham. His debut, Sleepyhead, was my first bite of police procedural fiction. After that, I had to devour the whole series that is still running today.
Any productivity hacks that allowed you to write (and publish) three novels in three years?
It may appear to be three novels in three years, but it’s not that impressive! The first book was written over about three years through courses etc. The second and third books were a shock to the system — that good old pressure of a deadline, never mind grief and lockdowns.
On winning Bloody Scotland
Winning the Bloody Scotland Best Scottish Crime Debut was a surreal and fantastic experience.
For years I went to Bloody Scotland as an avid reader of crime fiction. It was such a thrill to get up close to writers I admired and to hear their stories and journeys.
I remember thinking how amazing it would be to one day be published and to see my name somewhere at the festival, no matter how small! So to win that award with my debut was a dream come true.
Advice for pre-published writers
My advice would be to keep turning up to the desk. You have to enjoy what you’re writing. Otherwise, your reader will feel that. Put in the work and continue to dream.
I never thought it would happen to me, but I believe you can do it, take the leap and send those opening chapters. You’ll never find out if you don’t.
And if you do send it out and are met with rejections, keep trying; it only takes one yes!